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Why fast and powerful computers are especially good if you are getting old

I recall, in the very early days of the personal computer, articles, in magazines like Personal Computer World, which expressed downright opposition to the idea of technological progress in general, and progress in personal computers in particular. There was apparently a market for such notions, in the very magazines that you would think would be most gung-ho about new technology and new computers. Maybe the general atmosphere of gung-ho-ness created a significant enough minority of malcontents that the editors felt they needed to nod regularly towards it. I guess it does make sense that the biggest grumbles about the hectic pace of technological progress would be heard right next to the places where it is happening most visibly.

Whatever the reasons were for such articles being in computer magazines, I distinctly remember their tone. I have recently, finally, got around to reading Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies, and she clearly identifies the syndrome. The writers of these articles were scared of the future and wanted that future prevented, perhaps by law but mostly just by a sort of universal popular rejection of it, a universal desire to stop the world and to get off it. “Do we really need” (the words “we” and “need” cropped up in these PCW pieces again and again), faster central processors, more RAM, quicker printers, snazzier and bigger and sharper and more colourful screens, greater “user friendlinesss”, …? “Do we really need” this or that new programme that had been reported in the previous month’s issue? What significant and “real” (as opposed to frivolous and game-related) problems could there possibly be that demanded such super-powerful, super-fast, super-memorising and of course, at that time, super-expensive machines for their solution? Do we “really need” personal computers to develop, in short, in the way that they have developed, since these grumpy anti-computer-progress articles first started being published in computer progress magazines?

The usual arguments in favour of fast and powerful, and now mercifully far cheaper, computers concern the immensity of the gobs of information that can now be handled, quickly and powerfully, by machines like the ones that we have now, as opposed to what could be handled by the first wave of personal computers, which could manage a small spreadsheet or a short text file or a very primitive computer game, but very little else. And of course that is true. I can now shovel vast quantities of photographs (a particular enthusiasm of mine) hither and thither, processing the ones I feel inclined to process in ways that only Hollywood studios used to be able to do. I can make and view videos (although I mostly stick to viewing). And I can access and even myself add to that mighty cornucopia that is the internet. And so on. All true. I can remember when even the most primitive of photos would only appear on my screen after several minutes of patient or not-so-patient waiting. Videos? Dream on. Now, what a world of wonders we can all inhabit. In another quarter of a century, what wonders will there then be, all magicked in a flash into our brains and onto our desks, if we still have desks. The point is, better computers don’t just mean doing the same old things a bit faster; they mean being able to do entirely new things as well, really well.

The reason I have been reflecting on the above argumentative familiarities is that I was recently, and for a frustratingly long time, deprived of my own super-fast, super-powerful computer. Instead, I had to make do with a much more primitive computer, in the form of a very cheap and very obsolete laptop, which I had pretty much ceased using at all, except in emergencies like this one. And the “emergency” despite daily hope that it would soon end, went on and on, and on.

There I was, back from my holiday in France. But no sooner had I posted a holiday photo-essay, with all the ease and convenience referred to in the previous paragraph, than my regular big box of a domestic computer started seriously misbehaving. It had been behaving oddly before I left for my holiday, but now, it began seriously to deteriorate, and in due course arrived at the state of not being able to load anything at all. The Man Who Does Computers For me decreed that radical transplant surgery was needed, and since the current lot of body parts, although very fast and very powerful by the standards I was familiar with, were already several years old, I thought now would be a good moment to upgrade everything, to a state of even more formidable superpower and superspeed.

But alas, contriving and checking all the required new body parts, and ensuring that they will work together as desired proved to be a frustrating process, beset by weird software misbehaviours (caused by the manner of my computer’s collapse – in rather the way that all strokes are slightly different, depending on which exact bits of the brain they happen to damage), and by hardware that (entirely coincidentally) proved unsatisfactory. The new machine is now finally working, but until that happy moment I had to endure a time of computer primitiveness far longer than I would have liked or had been expecting.

One thing about misery though: it makes you much more aware of the benefits that prevail when the particular misery you are suffering from does not. Having been forced to endure getting on for a month of computer hell, I became a lot more appreciative of the computer heaven that I had been temporarily expelled from. In its ghastly way, it was a most enlightening ordeal.

But, what an ordeal was! It might almost have been better to have had no computer at all. I had hoped to resume quite regular postings at Samizdata as soon as I got back from France, but honestly, it was more than I could bear, doing serious blogging with a machine which felt as if it had been assembled some time in the previous century. Word processing itself was okay, just about. But embedding links, for example, involves your computer being in two places at once, and that is something that the old laptop I had to make do with simply could not do. It had to go, laboriously, from one place to the other, and then laboriously back again, like a geriatric manservant in a comedy sketch.

But the good news is that this exercise in time travel gave me a whole new appreciation of the enormous contribution made by modern computers to modern life, not just for techno-magicians like many of Samizdata’s writers and readers but to to regular, dumb computer users like me, and in particular to regular, dumb computer users like me who are getting old.

For, getting old I am. For all of my life so far I have been told that I look young for my age, which is because I have actually been and still am young, for my age. (I sang boy soprano, very well, until I was nineteen.) But eventually, however young you may look compared to it, your age starts adding up to something irresistibly substantial. I never used to do old, but now I must. It’s taking a bit of getting used to, I can tell you.

Memory loss isn’t the worst of it by any means, but memory loss is very disconcerting. A few nights ago I met up with a good friend, truly a good friend. But, a good friend rather recently acquired, whom I had not bumped into for a few weeks. So, what the hell was her name? It took me about half an hour to work it out in my head. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have recently said something like: look, sorry, I know you, very well indeed, but could you please oblige by reminding me of your name. Which really will not do, because it is still far too rude. Now, I have started deploying all those Old Person expressions, of the sort much used by people like Test Match Special’s resident Old Toff, Henry Whatsisname), like “dear old thing” (Whatsisname is famous for that one) and “sunshine” and “mate” and so forth and so on. I struggle to remember the names of famous actresses, like the one who was in that famous movie called … you know, the one with the … things in it, and the other things and the scene where … that thing happened. More and more, the words I want just aren’t there at the front of the mental shelf any more.

And then there is short-term memory loss. Moments before first concocting this sentence, I made myself a cup of coffee, then I did something else, and then I came back to the coffee. Had I put sugar in? I had no line-of-asterisks-ing idea. I had to taste it to find out. I can remember articles in Personal Computer World from over thirty years ago like it was yesterday, but when washing, I now often wash parts of myself twice or even three times, because I can’t remember if those parts have been washed yet, even though if earlier washing did occur, it did so only seconds ago. This sort of thing is not now a regular or very extreme experience, but it is starting to happen too often for complete mental comfort.

Okay, so you have now read two blog postings, explicated at Old Person length (a phenomenon which is partly caused by not knowing what one has just said and feeling the need to say it again): one posting about computers improving and the other about how Old Persons deteriorate, and you may be wondering why? What have powerful, superfast, progressing computers (see what I mean about repetition) with ever more capacious and rapid-recall memories to do with human brains that are moving in the opposite direction?

The answer is that, as an Old Person, I found the switch back in time from an approximately up-to-date computer to a definitely not-up-to-date computer to be particularly disconcerting. Me now being an Old Person, I found that in some important ways, I missed my spanking fast and superpowerful computer even more than I would have done had I been twenty.

Consider the process of trying to embed links in something like this posting. This, as I say, involved an agonising wait while my primitive laptop switched its attention away from this word processing programme and towards the vastness of the internet. Eventually, after a long, long time (even though that window was already, theoretically “open”), it arrived at the ordained destination in the internet, and I with it. But what was I doing there? What was I doing, at all? Often, by the time I got to where I had earlier decided that I wanted to be taken, I had forgotten.

To hammer home (or perhaps I just mean just to say again) the point about short term memory loss, we Old People are easily distracted. This is because the latest thing that pops into our head is often, for those vital few fractions of a second when it first arrives there, the only thing there. Why is it there? No answer. It just is. So, when I arrived at a piece of writing that twenty seconds earlier I wanted to link to from some word processing I was doing, I instead just gawped at it for a second, and then saw a link to something else interesting, and then there was another wait … and I would spent the next twenty minutes lurching about hither and thither like a slow motion metal ball in an arcade machine, accomplishing nothing.

Do you see where I am going with this? Well, you probably did about five paragraphs ago, but please be polite and patient, as you would be with an old relative. My point is this. A superspeedy computer, far from being something that an Old Person like me can’t now keep up with, is actually more than ever necessary. A computer which will follow my train of thought fast enough for me not to keep forgetting what that train of thought is is no longer merely nice; it is positively essential. When it comes to me telling a computer to switch its attention, and mine with it, from place A to place B, the difference between a twentieth of a second and twenty seconds is all the difference, just as the difference between seeing a photo on your screen in two seconds rather than in two minutes was all the difference, back in the early noughts when playing with pictures on a computer for fun rather than mere profit suddenly became a reasonable thing to be doing.

A fast computer is not something that I am now getting too slow to keep up with. A fast computer is a necessity, to enable me to stay tuned in to the world. I don’t slow it down. It speeds me up, to the point where it actually keeps me going. I am lost without it.

It was fairly predictable, even to those Personal Computer World grumps who could see it but who merely didn’t like it, that the next batch of kids would find new and snazzy things to do with new and snazzy computers, and that, with the impatience of youth, the kids would want their computers to do everything, no matter how brainlessly trivial, at once. They wouldn’t need superfast computers, but they would definitely want them. But I think that the fervour, precisely because I am no longer a kid, with which I longed to get my hands back onto what was already my fastest and most powerful computer ever (and it should be even faster and even more powerful when the final lot of tweaking is done, Real Soon Now) would not have been quite so predictable thirty years ago. I remember reading that one of the earliest non-warfare related applications of computer chips was in the making of deaf-aids. So, probably, those who were then already expert in catering for the computational needs of that generation of Old People could see that even better computer power would be an even greater boon for the next generation of oldies, but I’m guessing that such specialist clairvoyance was strictly a minority accomplishment.

The moral of which is the point that Virginia Postrel and a million others have spent the last few decades insisting upon, which is that you just can’t tell what great new applications will be found for better kit, new inventions, new infrastructure, new vistas and new landscapes, real or virtual. All hail Moore’s Law!!! It is not enough to say that because you personally cannot see or refuse to see what possible use some new device or discovery might be to anyone, that therefore nothing of importance will be lost if you and your stick-in-the-mud political allies manage to put a stop to it. Solutions, once devised to solve one silly little problem, then roam the earth looking for other problems to solve, and they find them, often very big and much more serious problems compared to the original problem.

Fast computers, just a stupid trick to enable bored teenagers to play insanely intricate computer games and let lazy or impatient scientists do their sums quicker, right? Wrong. Yes, all that, but also, something to make old age far, far more bearable, and to make many other things better and nicer that neither you nor I nor even the entire Samizdata writeriat nor commentariat can now imagine.

A while back, I did an early and much shorter version of the above at my personal blog here, focussing on the particular joy of word processing, if your short-term memory is collapsing. (Word processing tells you what you just put!)

And see also this piece, about how very old Great Conductors are still able to communicate effectively with a Great Orchestra, even as their grip on everyday life collapses. (Because a Great Orchestra is a lot like a superpowerful computer!)

Thank you for reading all the way through this. You have been very patient and kind. Now off you go, you have other more important things to be getting on with. Don’t mind me, I’ll be okay (thanks to things like ever more superpowerful computers).

23 comments to Why fast and powerful computers are especially good if you are getting old

  • Paul Marks

    Well on this new computer it has (today – for no reason) decided to split the screen (so I can not even read what I am typing – because the text is too small).

    Anyway – even when computers are not new and powerful (i.e. irritatingly over complex crap) they are bad news in terms of health.

    Instead of cleaning the house, or doing the garden, or going for a walk – people are tied to their chairs (for hours each day) answering e.mails that arrive in their “in box”.

    I think the principle reason for the decline of my own health over recent years is ccmpiuters – or at least the internet.

  • Regional

    You ain’t seen nothing yet!
    The great enemy of progress is opportunistic politicians who try to control evolution. The Labor party in Boganstan appointed a total effwit, Kim Carr to be the Minister of Innovation. The Industrial Revolution occurred without Gubbmint oversight, death is too good for these cunts.

  • I’m not old and I can’t remember anyone’s name or what I am doing or whether I have put sugar in my tea. Is it possible you just worry about this stuff more as you get older?

    I am convinced that, while computers are ever increasingly amazing, software continues to be a bit rubbish. Maybe it will get its act together when this Moore’s Law thingy starts to slow down. I think a revolution of good software could be quite something to behold.

    I think computers and the Internet will save a lot of people who *can’t* get out in the garden or go for a walk from the worst things about being stuck inside. I would not want to be a pre-computer old person.

  • SC

    >The writers of these articles were scared of the future and wanted that future prevented, perhaps by law but mostly just by a sort of universal popular rejection of it, a universal desire to stop the world and to get off it. “Do we really need” (the words “we” and “need” cropped up in these PCW pieces again and again), faster central processors, more RAM, quicker printers, snazzier and bigger and sharper and more colourful screens, greater “user friendlinesss”, …?

    I don’t know about that explanation. I suspect writers in their position get what we could call ‘new gear fatigue’. They’re constantly exposed to all the new gear that comes out and eventually they just get fed up with it all.

    The other reason is money. You get it set in your head that you need such-and-such a system, and you have just enough money to scrape together to get that. But eventually you realize that the spending on new gear will never actually stop.

  • I have quite a few computers in my house, but the two most expensive of them are stuck in my ears enhancing my hearing. Three cheers and a tiger for faster, smaller, more powerful computers!

  • Surellin

    I wonder whether some of the resistance to newer/better computers stemmed from first-generation Personal Computer Supreme Gods who saw quite clearly that they were going to get inundated and not be at all special anymore. By my personal experience this happened when the command line gave way to the GUI, and how we hated Windows for that!

  • Edward Henning

    “scared of the future” — sorry, this just cannot be correct. But annoyed at the attitudes of the major IT companies and the manner in which they were directing us towards that future. Certainly. I should state an interest here. I used to write for PC User and PC Magazine in the UK; never PCW. So often we saw companies trying to force users in a specific direction, tying them in to their particular products lines. Remember how you were effectively forced to upgrade Word, because Microsoft had gratuitously changed the file format and you could not read the new file your office just sent. Did we really need that new file format? No. File format fascism, I called it. And then along came that dreaded anthropomorphic paperclip! Did we really need that? No. In 1988 Bill Gates described an open object-oriented operating system environment, in which Microsoft’s word processor could work with, say, Borland’s spell checker, or Adobe’s image editor, and so on. If only. What we got was very different. So, in defence of PCW, there was, and probably still is, a great deal to create frustration; but fear of the future? No way.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    I can’t advise about computers but ginko biloba does help with memory and general sharpness. I take 1000mg a day and have stopped woolgathering when driving, for instance. For the record, I’m 73.

  • mike

    “And then along came that dreaded anthropomorphic paperclip!”

    I had completely forgotten all about that stupid little monstrosity.

  • jsallison

    Holographic Kitteh Videos, baby!

  • Roue le Jour

    This why the IT industry doesn’t like old people. Once you have a considerable investment in understanding how something works, you quite reasonably don’t want it to change. Microsoft in particular seems to take considerable perverse pleasure in changing how stuff you are already familiar with works putting you back to square one with each new version. (Yeah, you can turn the effing ribbon off, but you can’t put all the menus back to the layout you already memorised.) As Edward Henning says, it’s just change for its own sake.

  • Runcie Balspune

    his why the IT industry doesn’t like old people

    As an old person in the IT industry, my 30 year stint is relatively meaningless, having a decade of COBOL programming is worth nought nowadays. Qualifications are worthless as back in the day no-one knew about databases or object orientated programming, let alone web servers and cascading style sheets.

    What makes it interesting is that greybeards like me have survived, we learnt and adapted, and that is a very valuable skill, unfortunately it is one without a grade or certification.

    I have noticed that the industry is starting to turn back, the era of ridding itself of the expensive fogeys and replacing them with cheap-as-chips chaps from abroad hasn’t worked out as expected, and the dearth of talent is starting to notice, particularly when you realise that (a) the cheapie people don’t learn new stuff as well as the oldies, and (b) there are no more oldies around to teach them. What first appeared as a solid cost saving strategy is going to cost dear.

    I may yet be able to get a few years of eye-wateringly high fee consultancy in before I start losing a few marbles, then you’ll find me curled up in the corner nursing my Psion 3m.

  • Regional

    I bought a laptop for $500 and a radio doggle that costs $30 a month and I’m good to go.

  • rxc

    As someone who was programming “big iron” back in the late 60s, I can remember that there were LOTS of anti-technology demonstrations back then, and there was a LOT of concern about what technology was going to do to us. I remember doing computer backups on to large tape reels and then taking the tapes off=site because of anticipated demonstrations on the college campus where I studies and worked. It was an engineering school, but the non-techies wanted to express their dissatisfaction with the way the world was headed, and we feared that they would rush into the computer rooms and trash something important and expensive. Nerds were NOT considered attractive back then…

    I think that the anti-computer luddites just got too far behind the curve, and did not gain traction fast enough to put a stop to all this computer foolishness. Probably, it is Stave Jobs fault, for developing iphones and other devices that children could use, and it just grew too fast. Too many people realized that the good aspects outweighed the potential downsides, and the machines took over.

    Now, I think that the luddites are using the hacking attacks and the government wiretapping and the corporate databanks of personal info to keep some sort of fear alive. They are still around, but they don’t have any real blockbuster disasters to use to turn us all away from tech. Maybe if a Carrington class solar flare hits and everything dies, but then there will be too much very basic stuff to worry about (think food and water supplies) to worry about the rise of the machines – we will demand that they all get back on-line and working again.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    September 17, 2014 at 8:42 pm

    They are still around, but they don’t have any real blockbuster disasters to use to turn us all away from tech.

    That, or we’ve ‘defined disaster down’, to paraphrase Senator Moynihan.

  • Ellen, I know someone who has one implanted under her skull. Amazing stuff indeed.

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    I think this was an early case of shock at the future. Someone should write a best-selling book called Future Shock And Awe.

  • veryretired

    I need a very fast computer because I just don’t have that much time left to wait around while a slow one does stuff.

    Besides, if it’s too slow, I forget the stuff I was doing anyway.

  • Timely post. I’ve been suffering the same frustrations with loss of focus while waiting for a badly-outdated laptop to catch up with me. Advancing age does sometimes bring that. But I’m also less patient with technology and devices in general than I was in, say, 1975 (when I first started using computers) or in 1984 (when I got my first work PC), and more fussy in general regardless of my short-term memory. So the delays that might not have got me sputteringly distracted in the past, do now.

    Anyway, this is all by way of helping justify the big lump of money I spent yesterday upgrading from a five-year-old laptop to a new one. I’m not suffering buyer’s regret, but I’m acutely aware that I spent about twice what I anticipated.

    Indeed, on this new laptop, I’m breaking my long-time rule, which has been to avoid investing in the latest laptop technology and to instead spend that money for a more upgrade-friendly desktop system. My new laptop will have no optical (which is to say, conventional spinning-disk) hard drive, but instead a 512MB solid state hard drive (SSD) that should boot up and run applications much more swiftly.

    So: Thanks for the well-explicated additional basis to justify my investment. I’ll use one hand to pat myself on the back while the other hand tries to find my specs and mouse and the TV remote and my car keys.

  • Bah. I shouldn’t have used the word “optical” above. That’s not for HDDs, that’s a category that includes CDs and DVDs. I meant my new laptop won’t have a conventional hard disk drive.

    Another data point on the effects of ageing!

  • RebeccaH

    What a great article, speaking directly to my own situation. Getting older, no longer as quick of mind as previously, but not ready to sink into that morass of intellectual sludge yet. I just upgraded to a laptop that is far quicker and more agile than my old desktop (although not at the top of the line as far as computing power goes), but it will serve me for whatever years I have left, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly. Yes, I need quicker connections and computing power, not the staid progression I had before on my desktop (which is ironic for someone whose very first computing experience was a Wang dumb terminal, and an Apple IIe).